New Music of Note 03/31/2021

Archie Shepp, Charles Lloyd, Pharoah Sanders, Daniel Carter

Archie Shepp & Jason Moran/Let My People Go
Charles Lloyd & The Marvels/Tone Poem
Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, London Symphony/Promises

The continued ability of free jazz to consolidate the musical, social, and political experience of Black Americans into a voice that at once expresses celebration, activism, and spirituality is amazing. These latest releases by Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, and Charles Lloyd express all of the anger, hope, determination, and despair that Black Americans have felt throughout their history in the New World, but they also point the way forward for a new generation of musicians and activists who have much work to do. 

Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous line about the arc of history bending slowly but surely towards justice is inspirational and, generally speaking, true, but it obscures the restlessness and anxiety of the individual: I know this stuff will get sorted out one day, but my life is finite. Where is my justice? Where is my perfect reflection of truth?  Or more simply, as my terminally ill 85-year-old mother recently said to me, "you want to feel like things have improved somewhat during the time you've been here. You don't want to feel as though nothing has gotten better."

For Lloyd, Sanders, and Shepp, whose musical and political ideas were formed in the crucible of the late 1960s under the influence of King, Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Stokely Carmichael, and others, it must be truly alarming to consider how little things have actually changed.  Musically,  they forged their styles from the late work of tenor John Coltrane. Sanders not only worked with Coltrane on such late-stage albums as Ascension but also played with Coltrane's widow, Alice, on Journey to Satchidananda and Ptah the El Daud, recordings whose significance has only grown with time. 

Archie Shepp's Let My People Go finds him in the company of Jason Moran, one of the most innovative 21st-century jazz pianists, able to convincingly combine post-bop and avant-garde jazz with blues and stride piano as well as displaying an understanding of hip hop and electronic music. The pair make an excellent duo, in part because Shepp is no stranger to mixing musical styles as well as adding poetry and acting to the mix. Last year he was featured heavily on Ocean Bridges, an album by hip hop artists Raw Poetic (Shepp's nephew) and Damu the Fudgemunk. On Let My People Go he and Moran perform a variety of songs written by Black musicians, choosing from a repertoire he has performed many times before: "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" "Go Down Moses,: "Round Midnight," "Lush Life."  Indeed, Shepp has performed some of these songs on his album with pianist Horace Parlan, Going Home, a recording where Shepp traded the fiery language of protest found on his classic album Attica Blue for a deep and profound look at the spiritual basis of Black American music. 

Charles Lloyd has followed a different path to his current role as an elder statesman of jazz musicians who came to public notice in the late sixties and early seventies. Lloyd's quartet featured a 21-year-old Keith Jarrett and attracted the attention of young concert-going audiences despite being a fresh take on Coltrane's quartet rather than a blast of fusion. Seventies albums featured more island rhythms and used guitar rather than piano. Lloyd played more flute as well, and these records sound very much like the time in which they were recorded. Lloyd took a hiatus through most of the eighties, reappearing with the 1990 ECM album Fish Out of Water, beginning what would be an especially fruitful period for Lloyd.

Lloyd's ECM work features a tenor sax sound that is smoother and deeper in tone than that of his earlier work. In addition, Lloyd placed the introspective, spiritual side of his playing at the forefront of his new work. Beginning in 2000 with The Water Is Wide, Lloyd demonstrated a mature, deeply spiritual, and longing aspect to his work that found an appreciative audience. He recorded a final album with dying percussionist and friend Billy Higgins that remains an extraordinary document of a musical relationship, while his 2002 double CD set Lift Every Voice features everything from spirituals to deep Memphis blues and post-Coltrane jazz. In 2013 Lloyd released his final ECM recording, a duet record with Jason Moran titled Hagar's Song. 

Over the past several years Lloyd has recorded for the Blue Note label with his latest group, The Marvels. That band, featuring Reuben Rogers (electric bass), Eric Harland (drums), Greg Leisz (steel guitar), and Bill Frisell (guitar), explores a sound that is deeply American while being, at the same time, universal. There are especially intimations of the deep, often ignored, roots of country music in the blues and spirituals of Black Americans as the band intersperses original compositions with covers like Dylan's "Masters of War" and the traditional "Shenandoah." The group has also worked with vocalists, featuring Willie Nelson and Norah Jones on their first recording, 2016's I Long To See You, and pairing up with Lucinda Williams on their second outing, Vanished Gardens. Ben Ratliff wrote that Lloyd "is pretty good at seeing beyond the limitations of a given musical language while conveying the beauty in it," and that is beautifully conveyed by Lloyd and The Marvels. 

The group's latest recording, Tone Poem, is completely instrumental and features original Lloyd compositions as well as pieces by Ornette Coleman, Bola de Nieve, Leonard Cohen, Thelonious Monk, and The Beach Boys. The group's take on Coleman's "Peace" is moody and meditative, while Lloyd finds the New Orleans second-line DNA behind Coleman's "Ramblin'" before Leisz and Frisell take it to the honky-tonk. With The Marvels, Charles Lloyd has found a great way to consolidate the music he has played throughout his career as well as ways to play American music in a manner that is beyond category. 

Maybe the most surprising recent release by a major avant-garde jazz artist is Promises, featuring Sanders, electronic artist Floating Points, and the London Symphony Orchestra. It shouldn't be, though, because Sanders has a lengthy career of working with collaborators and looking towards the future. Sanders was a member of John Coltrane's final quintet and played on the recordings Ascension (which also featured Archie Shepp) and Meditations as well as the posthumously-released Om. Sanders' own work, such as Tauhid and Karma were heavily influenced not only by Coltrane's later work but also by his deeply spiritual musical suite A Love Supreme. Sanders' work featured chanting, influenced by his early period playing with Sun Ra and by Coltrane's work.

More than any other jazz musician Sanders' music was identified as 'spiritual jazz,' but his overall trajectory puts him very much on the same journey as Shepp and Lloyd. Though Sam Shepherd (who records as Floating Points) provides the basis of the record's sound, a soft, luminous cloud of sound that reads as ambient, it's not an ambient record, largely due to Sanders' yearning, inquiring sax lines. Around the halfway point, the London Symphony's string section adds depth to the mix, but the overall effect is of a piece that has more forward motion than you might find on most performances of ambient compositions. 

It's been ten years since Sanders has recorded but the sound of his saxophone is soaring and vital and instantly recalls the spiritually-minded music of his heyday. And that is where all three of these artists currently reside, musically. They know the strength of the historic music of their people, the spiritual strength that helps them survive and thrive even in the face of seemingly unlimited adversity. All three of these albums belong on my year's best list, and not just for jazz--these are records that sum up the profoundly beautiful music these artists have created during their lengthy careers and they reward any listener who comes to them with an open mind, but more important still is an open heart. 

Daniel Carter/Welcome Adventure, V.1

I missed out on this extraordinary recording released last June, but there is going to be a V. 2, so it's still current. I never want to become so caught up in the idea that new music always = new releases. I mean, the music out there is wider and deeper than any individual can catch--which is one reason I write this newsletter, and why I read what others are writing about music I haven't yet heard.

In any case, what we have here is a quartet recording by multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, Matthew Shipp, William Parker, and Gerald Cleaver that is one of the most instantly gratifying jazz releases I've listened to lately. It reads very much as a real quartet and not merely a group of top-name jazz musicians asked to do a session together, and why not?  These musicians have been playing together in various combinations for decades now. Everyone here is doing what they do and playing at what sounds like the top of their game, which means not just what they play, but how they listen to each other. 

At times Matthew Shipp's Monk-isms are on display, at others the quartet, with Carter on tenor sax, heads into mainstream post-bop jazz, only to circle around to free group improvisation. The opener, a thirteen-minute track titled "Majestic Travel Agency" covers all of these bases and more, ending with a gorgeous Carter sax exploration accompanied by Parker's weightless bass and some percussive color by Cleaver. This is followed by a briefer interlude featuring Carter on muted trumpet that can't help but evoke Miles Davis, and the whole track is eerily reminiscent of the second great quintet, which is to say they evoke the spirit of that band without merely retreading the sound. 

Partway through the final track, the twenty-minute 'Ear-regularities' it occurs to me that free jazz is about playing jazz freely, following through its 100 year-plus history and allowing bop to mingle with avant-garde and that the very notion of outside playing is a continuum and that most musicians are rarely all in or all out unless they are playing a specific style on purpose. Free jazz means freedom to play with a groove or no groove, to play with changes or no changes, and so on. Even though 'Ear-centricities' is more instantly recognizable as free jazz to the average listener, it is still a piece that continues the quartet's idea of playing what comes along as part of the inspiration rather than forcing a certain style. It makes Welcome Adventure! V. 1 a record I think I'll want to hear two years from now as much as I do today, and I'm definitely on the lookout for V.2.

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